The fiber-optic cable is buried alongside the freeway from Dublin to East Liberty in Logan County, yet few if any of the nearly 50,000 motorists passing by every day notice.
In coming years, the 35-mile stretch of Route 33 — known as the Smart Mobility Corridor — promises to bring safety innovations and, eventually, driverless vehicles.
“You really have the ultimate playground for the testing of autonomous vehicles,” said Eric Phillips, executive director of the Union County Community Improvement Corp. and CEO of the Union County Chamber of Commerce.
The concept is unnerving to some who see dangers behind the steering wheel every day. Yet experts are spending millions of dollars to ensure that transportation safety only improves with technology.
“The plan is to improve safety and reduce congestion,” said Phillips.
Since 2016, almost $100 million has been pledged or spent in federal, state and local funding, including $24 million by Ohio State University and $15 million from the Ohio Department of Transportation, on high-capacity fiber cables. The precise outlay of cash from local communities is still being determined, Phillips said.
Offshoots of the research project will happen throughout central Ohio.
For example, officials hope that by 2020, there will be 1,800 vehicles owned by the city of Columbus equipped with technology that will connect them to one another and to road and traffic-light sensors.There will be 179 intersections, most in Columbus, that will monitor traffic, adjusting traffic-signal timing in real-time to prevent snarls and crashes.
An additional 1,200 vehicles will be linked in Marysville and along Route 33. At 5th and Main streets in downtown Marysville, the first of more than 25 digital communication towers that will allow communication among cars has been installed. More will follow.
The Marysville intersection, and eventually the city itself, will become the epicenter for smart transportation, said City Manager Terry Emery, who also heads the council of governments, including Dublin, Marysville and Union County, overseeing the work.
“A fully connected Marysville allows us to see how this technology works in an entire community,” he said. “We sit right in the middle of this.”
Being the proverbial guinea pig is not lost on Emery.
“Sometimes, you’d rather sit back and watch a pilot (project) work in your community. But if we can be at the forefront, making communities safer, we’re willing to make it work.”
Benefits of having connected vehicles include a reduction of crashes, traffic congestion and carbon emissions. On freeways, truck convoys can be formed to allow for safer travel in close proximity, a process known as “platooning.”
The Route 33 corridor itself is home to more than 66 companies that cater to the automotive industry, many of them Honda of America suppliers. Ohio State University’s Center for Automotive Research and multi-user Transportation Research Center are anchors along Route 33. The corridor is expected to be a magnet for others.
Gov. John Kasich announced the state funding earlier this year and equated its role to that of the Wright brothers as aviation pioneers, noting “innovations developed here will continue to build on our state’s historic role as a world leader in transportation technology.”
The corridor, one of many throughout the country, is considered the largest so far and with the highest concentration of automotive partners and expertise.
As for concerns about driverless vehicles zooming down the highway, that will happen only when systems are proved to be safe.
“We’re going to be doing a lot more with connected vehicles than with autonomous ones,” said Emery.